When Emma Bird first saw the land at Castledonovan in Drimoleague, there was no going back. She instantly fell in love with this wild patch of ground with its meandering paths and majestic waterfall. Details like a house, electricity or water were unimportant she tells Mary O’Brien; Emma literally pitched a tent, which she shared with five dogs, and set up home in a place that she describes felt very much like the ‘wild west’.
Fifteen years on and Emma and her husband Marcus, together with their children, Luka (12) and Ruben (10), have transformed those 20 acres into ‘Waterfall Alpaca Farm’, a project that combines animals with nature to create a fun and educational experience for the children of West Cork. The ‘Alpaca Walk’ is also part of the Drimoleague Heritage Walkway.
“The land has got its own volition; we just try to keep up with it,” says Emma. It was overgrown and neglected for so many years but the meandering and natural paths were there so we just cleared the vegetation above the paths and this wonderful walk by the river emerged.”
There are 14 Alpacas, a number of wonderful rabbits, an ancient breed of sheep, some chickens, two “very nice but naughty donkeys”, as well as all the wildlife provided by the natural environment on Waterfall Alpaca Farm.
“Alpacas are vey gentle and especially good with children with special needs,” says Emma. “They are also curious and friendly, quite wonderful animals.”
The rabbits at Waterfall include some interesting breeds — French Lop, Flemish Giants and Lionhead — and Mr Bumble and Mr Muntyflumpl have become real celebrities with the children.
The rare breed of ‘Soay sheep’ kept by Emma descends from an ancient population of feral sheep in the Hebrides. They are particularly agile and sure-footed.
During the tours on Waterfall Farm, children are allowed to get involved with feeding the animals and learn about their nature and habits. Emma explains what animals need and the children get a chance to talk about their own pets.
Alpacas require much less food than most animals of their size. They generally eat hay or grasses, but can eat some other plants (for example some leaves), and will normally try to chew on almost anything (for example an empty bottle).
Rabbits are very social animals, living in large groups in the wild. One rabbit on it’s own may become very lonely. “The best option is to keep a compatible pair or group such as neutered males and females,” explains Emma. They also need lots of space to enable them to stand up on their hindquarters and hop around. “I have a thing about rabbits,” says Emma. “They just get bought on a whim and no rabbit should be its own in a small hutch.”
As part of the organised school tours that visit the farm, children also get to experience the real magic of insects and other invertebrates. Dragonflies, butterflies tadpoles and lichens are all within grasp, as the children stroll along a river walk framed by wildflowers, herbs and native trees. They have the opportunity to absorb fascinating gems of information on the walk like how dragonflies are major predators that eat small insects like flies, bees, ants, wasps, and very rarely butterflies or how different lichens, depending on where they grow, can give an indication as to the quality of the air. “The trick,” Emma explains “is to hit on something that grabs their interest. If you talk about poo or cuckoo spit, the boys are all ears.” The walks are tailored to the age of the group and include storytelling. “Some groups want a story and some are full of their own stories,” says Emma. After an appetite has been built up on the walk, the children can picnic at the authentic Late Bronze Age stone (1300-1000 BC) on the farm.
From July, Farm Tours will take place on the hour from 2-5pm, Saturday and Sunday afternoons, costing just €4 per head, which includes refreshments (tea/coffee/icecream).
In the near future, Emma and Marcus hope to construct a barn on the farm, which will allow them to foster puppies from a rescue centre and educate the children on animal welfare issues and hopefully future prevention of these issues in Ireland. “There are so many animal welfare issues in Ireland, there is a real crisis,” says animal lover Emma, who worked with a number of animal charities and care agencies before moving to West Cork. “So many pets are just bought on a whim because of how they look without thought as to how they should be cared for.”
“It’s inherent in us when we’re born to love nature and animals and it’s really important to confirm that instinct with kids so they keep hold of that love through life and do become little environmentalists and animal lovers.”
In the long term, Waterfall Farm hopes to offer a café/farmshop for walkers and visitors, and by next year they intend to have a workshop space for feltmaking (with alpaca fleece) spinning and wood turning demonstrations.
For more information or to make a group booking, call Emma on 028 31953. .www.westcorkalpacas.com